Realists, all

Realists, all

by Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard photographer

The author shown in midst of active photographic work

Seated comfortably in a favorite chair in the drawing room of my home in Berkeley Square, I carefully read a collection of ancient letters written in the Eighteenth Century. Studying old letters, it seems, is my hobby, and for that reason I appear to feel that I am having a delightful if very quiet time. There are slippers on my feet, a down pillow at my back and a half finished whiskey and soda by my side, as I read on, deeply absorbed.
“Wonderful!” you might say, especially if you have an antiquarian taste. But is it? Hardly so, as there are altogether too many persons about for one to concentrate satisfactorily on the letters. The patch of trees and clouds, visible from my chair, is painted on a canvas backdrop and there is no glass in the panels of the wide French windows. The air is dancing hot under the battery of incandescent lights mounted on a crisscross of planking overhead, and just beyond camera range is a clutter of properties, lamps, microphone stands, reflectors and cameras. More than a score of workmen, more or less bored with the proceedings, look moodily in my direction, as they sit or stand on cat walks high above. This, then, is a picture of the cinema grinding mill; but it would be an injustice not to mention that it has many more pleasant moments.
It is here that creative cinematography attains its greatest refinement of technique, for no end of time, patience and expense goes into making professional motion pictures. A director, wishing to create certain effects, may keep a company of actors, technicians and laborers working for weeks if necessary, until the particular scenes he needs are recorded perfectly on a bolt of celluloid. Compare his studio facilities with those of the cine amateur and you are comparing the loom with the spinning wheel. Although both the professional and the amateur make motion pictures, each belongs to a different group of workers in the same artistic medium, and therefore they are related only distantly. It is patent that the creative dramatic group–with practically inexhaustible facilities–is hampered by the restrictions of a bugbear known as “the box office,” while the realistic group–with unlimited possibilities–is handicapped by lack of facilities.
Asked by a friend how, after a day at the studio, I still could endure grinding my 16mm. camera, I replied, “If I am fed up with the routine of picture making in studios, what could be more natural than to want to make my own movies in my own way?”
My first amateur motion pictures were of the quick and easy variety born of an aimless dilettantism, with emphasis on shots of friends just “standing there” while I clicked off footage. I soon decided that that sort of thing wouldn’t do at all, for, undeniably, the finished picture was marked by an evident ignorance of technical fundamentals. Surely, I thought, experience in the studios should beget better motion pictures than these. So I consciously resolved to stop cluttering up reels with nondescript scenes and to give my films better cinematic form.
We amateur cinematographers are, of necessity, producers of realism. When we film a polo match or football game, we must get it catch as catch can–not staged carefully for us–and it is always the real thing. When an interesting cloud formation appears, we hurry to catch the scene we want so that we can have the cloud as a background, for there is no means of putting it in afterward by double printing. When we make movies of friends, they must look their best, as we cannot ask them to put on grease paint, nor can we retouch the film if the closeups are disappointing. We are realists, all, and the full potentialities of movie making are revealed to us only when we recognize that fact and realize where the pitfalls lie.
To be sure, we may exercise a slight control over some subjects, such control being a measure of our ability as photographers. Often, at first glance, a scene will appear to be commonplace or otherwise uninteresting. However, with different lightning, for instance as a silhouette, it may have a striking appearance. Occasionally, a deep filter may work the transformation or a diffusion disc may be used to soften harsh lines and to bring new beauty to a subject. These manipulations in no way change our essential status as realists, for we still are striving for a natural effect. In photography, this realism has been defined aptly as “an objective rendering of fact free from any conceptions reminiscent of other mediums.”
An inherent quality of realism is essential in most amateur films if one is to become absorbed in the scenes as they flash on and off the screen. Minor inconsistencies are annoying. They register in the memory even though one’s interest may be recaptured quickly. For example, a panorama may be objectionable because it is grossly unreal to see stationary objects parading across the field of view. No matter how engrossed little Johnny is in his sailboat one moment, reality in the screen picture will be destroyed if he happens to look self consciously at the camera. I mention such obvious errors to show how necessary it is, when editing, to discard scenes which might break the thread of realism.
Here I am giving advice, and it was not at all my intention to impose upon you to that extent!

(Movie Makers, February 1935)